From International Socialist Review, Vol.23 No.3, Summer 1962, pp.67-75 and 95.
Transcribed by Daniel Gaido.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The Marxists, by C. Wright Mills.
Dell Publishing Co., Inc., New York. 480 pp. 1962. Paperback $.75.
On April 11, 1961 in connection with the manuscript-draft of The Marxists, I wrote C. Wright Mills:
“Because we have so many and such deep divergences on the validity, interpretation and application of Marxism, it will be most useful to you if I confine my remarks largely to matters of fact. When the book comes out, I hope to review it at length.”
I did not then think that this would have to be done without the possibility of rebuttal from Mills. He had plans for a book which would propose a program for “The New Left” and deal with the objections to his views expressed both from the academic right and the socialist left.
Mills was that rare person, a genuine democrat who welcomed the open clash of differing opinions. He resisted coercion of thought, whether it came from the Power Elite in the United States or the bureaucrats in the Soviet Union.
He wanted a free culture for himself and for everyone else. He was especially exhilarated by the prospect opened by the Cuban Revolution of instituting “a new zone of a new freedom in the Americas.” He told me he was part-inspirer of the project outlined in Listen, Yankee for establishing in Havana a university with a worldwide faculty which would “make Cuban intellectual life a truly international, a truly free forum, for the entire range of world opinion, art, judgment, feeling.”
“We want to hear in these new halls of learning a Chinese Communist Party member discussing with a North American Republican Party member the meanings of freedom!” he wrote. “Let a Polish economist discuss with a Cuban economist the problems of the collectivization of land. Let a Mexican oil expert discuss the issues of nationalization of oil resources with a Venezuelan expert, employed by Standard Oil of New Jersey. Let a British Labor Party man discuss with a Yugoslav politician – whatever they want to discuss.
“And put it all on tape. Print it in the newspapers of Cuba. Make it available in translations for the press of the world. Make books out of it.”
Mills regarded The Marxists as just such a contribution to the discussion of the major problems of our time designed to counteract the fear and ignorance of the ideas of Communism inculcated by the cold warriors.
Socialist ideas have become such an integral part of everyday political and intellectual life in the world outside North America that the negative aspects of Mills’ attitude toward Marxism would probably stand out most prominently there. But in the prevailing atmosphere of the United States the book should have a more beneficial influence.
For the past fifteen years the minds of the American people have been poisoned and perverted by anti-Marxist propagandists.
Today these range from the ultra-reactionary Birchites to the Sovietologists in the universities who teach that Marxism-Leninism is worth studying primarily to decipher the intentions of the “Communist enemy.”
Mills was disgusted with all this “hysterical nonsense” which has culminated in the establishment of anti-Communist schools and courses in colleges from New England to California. In The Power Elite he had exposed the realities of the rule of the rich. In The Causes of World War III he had condemned the criminal irresponsibility of the H-bomb strategy of their political and military representatives. In Listen, Yankee he warned the dollar diplomats to heed the voice of revolutionary Cuba and the hungry-nation bloc.
These works made Mills the mentor and hero of many young men and women who were equally fed up with the hypocrisy and brutality of the Washington policy makers and the thought control they encountered all about them. He pointed out another road for them by demonstrating that a scholar of unimpeachable standing and achievement could stand up for the truth against the lies of the monopolists and militarists and their conscripted intellectuals. He showed that the study of sociology did not have to result in acquiescence to the status quo or apology for its evils but could be the instrument of political protest and anti-capitalist criticism.
The Marxists should be appraised in connection with this current of radicalism. The “thaw” in Soviet literature since 1953 is an advance over the Stalin era even though it does not yet guarantee full and free expression to the writer. So The Marxists represents a step forward in American sociology although it does not adequately interpret scientific socialism.
In place of the doctored digests of the professional anti-Soviets, it offers samples of authentic Marxist thought along with samples of the opinions of its revisionists. Mills insists that Marxism is not only indispensable for understanding contemporary society but that it has given more effective expression than liberalism to the ideals of humanism, rationalism, freedom and democracy.
Through The Marxists Mills has placed the debate between socialism and capitalism, liberalism and Marxism, Bolshevism and Stalinism, Trotskyism and Stalinism in a new light. Free discussion on his serious intellectual level can help stir academic sociology from its slumbers and awaken more radical thought among the younger generation.
The criticism which I promised C. Wright Mills I would make of his positions is presented in that spirit of unhampered intellectual inquiry, of the give and take of contending ideas, which he sought to promote and so worthily exemplified – W.F.W.
* * *
The Marxists was the last of C. Wright Mills’ books to be published during his lifetime. His death at the age of 46 ended untimely a new beginning in his quest for sociological truth.
The Marxists is significant both for its opposition to the dominant trends in American social thought and for its place in the political and intellectual evolution of the author. This irreverent Columbia Professor of Sociology rejected the credo of his fellow faculty members that liberalism provides an adequate answer to Marxism.
Liberalism was once a fighting creed, he observed, but it has come to a dead end and now serves as a rationale and rhetoric for upholding the irresponsible rule of the Power Elite. It has been conscripted for this function because American conservatism has no philosophy of its own with which to defend the status quo.
Repudiation of the principal ideology for justifying the Big Money brought Mills face to face with Marxism, the foremost doctrine of the anti-capitalist forces. The Marxists records his debate with scientific socialism in order to define his own ideas and positions more precisely.
Mills accorded Marxism exceptionally high rank in the field of sociology. Marxism is more valuable for understanding today’s social realities than all “the abstractions, slogans and fetishisms of liberalism,” he insisted. He wanted to break down the bias against Marxism in the halls of learning and encourage students to assimilate its indispensable contributions to social science.
Mills challenged another shibboleth of the professional liberals who, for their own cold-war purposes, accept the claim of Stalinism that it is a continuation of genuine Marxism and Bolshevism, rather than its distortion and negation. He sought to dissociate the ideas of Marx and Engels from the Stalinist stigmas and, in line with this, to highlight the twin roles of Lenin and Trotsky who came together to form “the Bolshevik pivot” in the October 1917 Revolution.
He contrasts these two with Marx, whom he one-sidedly portrays as a creative thinker but not a man of action, and with Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, Tito and Khrushchev whom he rates as purely practical politicians. Lenin and Trotsky were for him embodiments of the unity of theory and practice. “Both are thinkers of high quality and both are among the most accomplished politicians of the last hundred years.”
In protest against “the enormous ignorance and systematic distortion” of Trotsky’s ideas, Mills calls upon the Soviet leaders “to publish great editions of Trotsky’s complete works and discuss widely and freely both his theoretical contributions and his political roles in their revolution. That will surely be most propitious,” he writes, “for new beginnings in Soviet Marxism.”
His recommendation that our countrymen find out what Marxism really teaches, his rejection of liberal complacency, his straightening-out of the roles of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin in the Marxist tradition will act as antidotes to widespread prejudices in our national thought.
Apart from selections of writings by socialist thinkers, from the founders of Marxism to the Yugoslav Kardelj, the Englishman G.D.H. Cole and the Cuban “Che” Guevara, the axis of the work is an examination of the merits and demerits of Marxism. What is the substance of his critical appraisal?
Scientific socialism gave a theoretical picture of capitalist society which was better than any other in its day. However, classical Marxism is a conceptual reflection of the conditions of nineteenth-century Western capitalism. The matured, highly industrialized capitalist societies of the mid-twentieth-century and the Soviet types of society require a more complex type of explanation. Marxism is the Model T of sociology, Mills implies. It must be traded in for a higher-powered design which has kept up with the immense changes in the most advanced sectors of the world.
Most important among these new phenomena is the enormous scale of the aggregations of economic, political, military and cultural power with their extreme centralization, bureaucratization and tyranny over helpless masses of ordinary individuals. These trends are most fully incorporated in the two gigantic superstates, the US and the USSR, which so belligerently confront each other.
“The run of historical events,” he writes, “has overturned the specific theories and explanations” of classical Marxism. On the one hand, capitalism is stronger than ever in the industrialized West where Marx foresaw the workers coming to power. On the other hand, all the major revolutions of our century have occurred in predominantly peasant societies with autocratic governments where capitalism was weak. No proletarian revolution of a Bolshevik type has taken place in a democratic capitalist society and there are no substantial reasons to anticipate that one ever will.
Above all, Marxist theory has been invalidated, Mills argues, because its central proposition that the wage-workers would become more and more class conscious, anti-capitalist and revolutionary has not been borne out in the developed capitalist countries. “To a very considerable extent, they have been incorporated into nationalist capitalism – economically, politically and psychologically.” The discrediting of “the labor metaphysics,” the keystone of the structure, entails the collapse of the rest of scientific socialism.
All that remains of the original Marxism as a lasting legacy to sociology is its method of work, he asserts. Everything else from its dialectical logic to its theory of the state has not stood the test of events and must be modified or discarded.
What does Mills propose to put in place of the classic liberalism and Marxism he has swept aside as obsolete? He does not give us much concrete information. In fact, he says he does not have to give any immediate alternative to the ideologies he has presumably demolished. He intended to work out his own theoretical positions and program of action subsequently together with those colleagues of “The New Left” who shared the view that they had gone beyond the limitations of Marxism to some superior but still indeterminate type of social theory.
Despite his disclaimer, Mills did have a general method of thought which inspired and directed his entire evaluation of Marxism – and it was hardly new. That method was pragmatism, the predominant mode of thought in American culture. To be sure, he gave a leftward twist to his empirical thinking in the field of sociology. But he stubbornly adhered to its premises and prejudices.
This was evident in the footnote where he curtly waved aside the dialectical method, the mainspring of Marxist thought, as mysterious and useless.
“For us,” he wrote, “the ‘dialectical method’ is either a mess of platitudes, a way of doubletalk, a pretentious obscurantism, or all three.”
Yet the contrast between the shortcomings of his own method and the value of dialectical thinking can be shown in regard to his very first criticism of one of the cardinal principles of Marxist sociology. This is the distinction between the economic conditions constituting the material substratum of society and the cultural superstructure which arises out of it and rests upon it.
“Exactly what is included and what is not included in ‘economic base’ is not altogether clear, nor are the ‘forces’ and ‘relations’ of production precisely defined and consistently used,” he complains. “In particular, ‘science’ seems to float between base and superstructure ...”
How does dialectical materialism approach the problem of the relations of science to the economic base and the cultural superstructure of society? This matter cannot be disposed of in a sweeping declaration, as Mills apparently demands. It is not so simple. The place and function of science in the social structure have not been the same in all historical epochs. They have changed in accord with the development of the forces of production and correlative changes in the mode of production.
Although the societies of savagery and barbarism nurtured embryonic elements of scientific knowledge, they contained as yet no science as a deliberate specialized pursuit of men, employing a rational method for investigating the phenomena of nature, society or the human mind. Science could emerge only when the powers of production had attained a certain height of development and the relations of production were of a special type (the commercial-craft relations of slave-holding antiquity).
These prerequisites were all brought together for the first time in Ionian Greece where science was born along with philosophy, materialism and mathematics. In this first stage of its existence, science, as part of philosophy, was situated exclusively in the cultural superstructure, even though it had been born of economic conditions and needs which set the elementary problems to be solved at that point in its growth.
So long as agriculture and craftsmanship remained the pillars of production under a system of slave labor, science could not and did not decisively react upon the social economy out of which it arose. This was further demonstrated by the fact that science continued to be cooped up in the cultural superstructure during feudalism, which likewise had an agricultural-artisan basis. Neither in Western Europe, India or China did science alter agriculture or craftsmanship to any real extent.
The great shift in the relations between science and production began with the bourgeois epoch. The economic needs and class interests of the merchants, mine owners, ship owners, manufacturers and their patron states not only promoted the growth of the sciences, especially in certain branches of physical knowledge such as astronomy, mechanics and optics, but changed the range and prospects of science in the social structure. This change was speeded up by the industrial revolution which became the technological basis of a matured capitalism. For example, the expansive power of steam, which was known in Greco-Roman antiquity but had been used solely for trivial purposes in temples and toys, became the prime motive force in the mechanism of production through applied science.
Since then science, through reciprocal action with industry, has grown like a giant. In the twentieth century the inventions and applications of science have transformed old branches of industry and even agriculture in the advanced countries. Scientific methods and discoveries have created wholly new, previously unknown industries such as electronics. In this way science is becoming the paramount factor in the progress of social production.
Thus we find that science has already passed through three distinct stages in relation to the rest of the social structure.
Capitalism, which stimulated science in its progressive days, tends more and more to pervert and stifle its growth. The boundless potential of science can now be realized only through abolishing the outmoded capitalist mode of production and private property restrictions. Socialism means, in essence, the scientific illumination, planning and direction of all man’s social activities from material production to the summits of intellectual creation.
This may seem an overlong answer to a single objection. But Mills has not brought up an incidental point. The history of science is bound up with the science of history. When Mills doubts whether Marxism really knows where science belongs in the totality of social development, he is questioning the scientific solidity of its method. If Marxism cannot answer this correctly, its credentials as a scientific sociology become dubious since science in its workings is the most influential factor in our lives today.
It is worth noting that, while questioning the capacity of historical materialism to provide a clear solution to the problem of the place of science in social development, Mills offers no answers of his own. He, not the Marxist, is really the one who is “floating” in empty space on this question.
Historical materialism approaches all aspects of social life from the standpoint of their connections with the development of the conditions of production. The evolution of science from primitive days to the present provides a prime example of this objectively conditioned process. Moreover, the reversal in the importance of science in the social order confirms the operation of two of the dialectical laws which Mills so scornfully dismisses: the law of the interpenetration of opposites and the law of the transformation of quantity into quality.
Science, once insignificant in production, has, through subsequent expansion of the forces of production, acquired the foremost place in production. Through the ages the relations between science and economy, the foundation of society, have changed into their opposite. Mankind is passing from a society dominated by routine, tradition, blindness and superstition to a society guided and controlled by conscious scientific method. And this qualitative change, to be perfected under socialism, has come about as the climax to the quantitative accumulation of scientific knowledge from savagery to the Atomic Era.
Do not the results of this dialectical and materialistic approach to the problem of social and scientific development offer some advantages over the skeptical empiricism of Mills?
The deficiencies of Mills’ method can be seen in his one-sided approach to the laws of social development. Mills praises Marx for using the principle of historical specificity which means that “each epoch must be examined as an independent historical formation in terms of categories suitable to it.” Mills however overlooked the fact that Marx not only studied the social formations of separate epochs but the entire evolution of society through all its stages. Every distinctive type of society from savagery to socialism was for him an interdependent link in a causal chain of social development which grew out of its predecessor and created the preconditions for its successor.
Marx was guided, not only by the principle of historical specificity, but equally by the principle of historical generality. As a dialectical thinker he understood the organic unity of the particular and the general and combined these two rules of method in all his investigations.
This is verified by Marx’s Preface to The Critique of Political Economy, reprinted in The Marxists, which contains his broadest formulation of the materialist conception of history. There Marx set forth, as “the general result” of his researches, fifteen propositions on the evolution of society. Twelve of these are net specific to any one social formation or historical epoch but apply to them all. Only in the last three does he refer to definite historical formations (the Asian, ancient, feudal and bourgeois modes of production and the transition of the latter to socialism).
It is understandable why Mills exalts the principle of historical specificity at the expense of the generalized conclusions Marx drew from his study of the successive stages of social development in their continuity and totality. It enabled him to lock Marx in a time-cage with other superannuated Victorian thinkers and to deny that his comprehensive laws of social evolution and revolution can be extended to cover the decline and downfall of capitalism while indicating the inescapable road to the next stage of human progress.
Mills is especially concerned to disqualify the foundation of the materialist conception of history which holds that production (and exchange) is the basis of every social organization; and that therefore, according to Engels, “the ultimate causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought not in the minds of men, in their increasing insight into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the mode of production and exchange; they are to be sought not in the philosophy but in the economics of the epoch concerned.”
Mills denies there has been any one such central determinant of social movement operative throughout human history. Together with his tutors Weber and Mannheim and other liberal sociologists, he counter-poises the theory of multiple, independent and parallel causes to the unified Marxist conception of historical causation. According to historical materialism, all the aspects of social activity – from burial rites to witchcraft and from politics to philosophy – exert their own measure of influence upon events but throughout their reciprocal action economics is the most important and conclusive element.
This “economic determinism” of Marx is too one-sided and dogmatic, he says, to do justice to the complexities of social evolution. Many factors other than economic conditions have been and can be fundamentally decisive in the course of development, not only within precapitalist societies but also under capitalism. Whereas, for example, economics may have been preponderant in early capitalism, political, military and other superstructural factors play an “autonomous and originative” role in its later and contemporary stages.
This thesis that economics is or can be subordinate to political and military forces will be familiar to readers of Mills’ previous works: The Power Elite and The Causes of World War III. There he found the ultimate causes for the unprecedented expansion, imperialist policies and aggressive strategy of US militarism, not in the economic necessities of monopoly capitalism, whose servitors are the decision makers in Washington, but rather in the “military metaphysics” which obsesses the statesmen and generals. Thus Mills reverted to the untenable viewpoint of idealism that the ultimate determinant of political events must be found, not in the economic framework within which the men at the top operate and within which they serve class interests, but in their mentality and outlook. From this sociological analysis flows the political conclusion that it is more realistic to try to change the thinking and policies of the people in power than to change the class possessors of power.
In The Marxists Mills goes on to affirm that the Welfare State, Siamese twin of the Warfare State, is likewise not “determined by the mode of economic production, although of course it is made possible by economic developments.” The imperialist democracies of monopoly capitalism have supplanted the laissez faire regimes of competitive capitalism, just as the guided missile has replaced the cannon ball. The Welfare State, which combines Keynesian credit devices with social legislation, is the result of many interacting factors, from the exigencies of capitalist rulership to the pressures of the trade unions.
The serious question is: whose class interests do these policies primarily serve? Roosevelt, the improviser of the New Deal, granted reforms where Hoover did not, because, as he candidly admitted in 1936: “liberalism becomes the protection of the far-sighted conservative.” By diverting a small fraction of the national revenue from its magnates to some of the more favored segments of the working people, the capitalist government is able to shore up its system. The masses more than pay for these restricted benefits by having to bear the penalties and burdens of continued exploitation and misrule along with misleadership by conservatized union bureaucrats.
The welfare provisions of the Warfare State can be sustained only by the wealthier capitalist countries, which can afford certain privileges for the labor aristocracy so long as these are offset by superexploitation of the underdeveloped continents. Whenever international competition tightens and corporation profits decline, the most liberal governments start whittling away at these social gains, as Belgium recently showed. Thus the extent and endurance of these concessions at bottom depend upon the economic resources and prospects of the national capitalism. Despite Mills’ contention, the causal mechanism of the Welfare State is to be found in the specific necessities of capitalist rule and its mode of production.
In accord with his thesis that “political and military State of action and decision” can override economic laws, Mills maintains, against the Marxists, that contemporary Western capitalism can be readjusted without limit by the policies of the monopolists or by liberal and Laborite reforms. Despite his repugnance to their course, he agrees with its supporters that the capitalist system has enough resiliency to go on indefinitely.
This confidence that the political dexterity of the capitalists can control the harmful consequences of their rule does not fit the main facts of the twentieth century. The failure of the monopolist policy makers to solve the problems of markets, raw materials, colonies and world supremacy led to two global wars which prepared and provoked anticapitalist overturns from Russia to China. Since 1917 one-third of humanity has thrown off the economic and political control of world capitalism.
To be sure, the economies of the US and Western Europe have had no grave economic disturbances in the past two decades comparable to the crises of the 1930’s. We have had the Cold War instead. But the US, mainstay of world capitalism, has passed through five recessions since 1945. Each one has lasted a little longer, leaving a larger residue of permanently unemployed and a growing anxiety about their material insecurity among sizeable sections of the workers.
Moreover, prolonged prosperity in the highly industrialized centers has been attended by chronic impoverishment in the less developed countries. The contrast between the economic levels and living standards of the rich and poor continents has become wider and deeper – and no Point 4 or Alliance for Progress programs can stem their inevitable consequences. The inability of the imperialist powers to overcome the disparity of rich and poor nations is at the root of the irrepressible surge and spread of the colonial revolution.
Meanwhile, the capitalist bloc confronts the workers’ states, not only as military, diplomatic and political adversaries, but as economic rivals. These states have considerable distances to travel before catching up with the older capitalist nations, but, paced by the Soviet Union, they are experiencing a faster rate of economic growth.
If Western capitalism were considered by itself since the end of the Second World War, it would be easy to conclude with Mills and others that political maneuvers and measures can immunize it indefinitely from revolutionary convulsions. Yet even here, a caveat is in order. If, from 1944 to 1946 the Stalinist and Social-Democratic leaderships had not collaborated with Churchill, Roosevelt and de Gaulle to derail the workers’ thrust toward power and to rehabilitate the shattered capitalist structure in Western Europe, history would have taken a different turn. Moreover, the respite did not save world capitalism from losing ground; it looks far less formidable on the world arena than it does from within the Atlantic Alliance.
It is true, as Mills emphasizes, that government intervention in the economic life of the capitalist countries has taken place on a massive scale. These measures have succeeded in delaying the advent of severe crises and will probably be stepped up in the years ahead. However, political regulation of the economy is a manifest symptom of the growing infirmity of capitalism which, in its monopolist-imperialist phase, can no longer rely upon the automatic operation of its forces for salvation. The plutocrats must utilize all the resources of state power to keep their system on an even keel, maintain their international positions, and forestall economic decline and political disturbances. Such intervention can alleviate the incurable ailments of the economy and attenuate their consequences but it cannot fend off the recurrence of more and more serious slumps.
Now, in this country government intervention is being extended to capital-labor negotiations where the Kennedy administration has held down wage increases in the steel industry under the pretext of “protecting the national welfare,” a pseudonym for corporation profits. This domestic policy is tied up with the worsening position of the US economy on the world market. The persistent deficit in the international balance of payments keeps draining the gold reserve, threatening more inflation and depreciation of the dollar.
The permanent overproduction crisis of US agriculture reflects the inability of the strongest capitalist government to counteract the workings of the “free enterprise” system. Price-support measures and new farm programs concocted by successive administrations do not go to the root causes of the problem. They simply relieve the situation for the time being and postpone the final reckoning.
The most malignant offshoot of government policy has been the unending arms race. The $50-billion annual military budget keeps injecting artificial stimulants into our sick economy. But the changeover from planes to guided missiles tends to diminish the effectiveness of this economic stimulant. Equivalent appropriations generate fewer jobs, since it takes fewer workers and less plant space to build missiles than planes.
Technological developments in the military domain are only one aspect of the impact of automation and mechanization upon the capitalist economy. These will reduce the industrial work-force as twenty-six million new young workers enter the job market in the next ten years. The cumulative consequences of these trends will serve to revive labor militancy, especially among the younger and less favored strata, and pose the issue of socialism versus capitalism more forcefully in bread-and-butter terms.
Mills’ faith in the endurance of capitalist sovereignty and his underestimation of the capacity and will of the working class for independent action spring from his acceptance of the predominant economic and political conditions of the past fifteen years as fixed and final. He does not expect these to be altered and undermined by countertendencies in the capitalist economy or by fresh advances of the anticapitalist forces which in the coming years will abruptly upset the status quo. The brusque conversion of the Fourth Republic into de Gaulle’s personal military regime indicates how rickety democracy can be when a national capitalism gets into difficulties. The most violent convulsions of capitalism lie ahead and are not safely buried in the past.
In his assessment of the stability of capitalist rule, Mills for some reason fails to take into consideration the H-bomb crisis which he dealt with at length in other works. The political-military situation called forth by the development of nuclear devices provides striking proof of the Marxist proposition that the crisis of a social system is brought about and its downfall prepared by intensified conflict between new forces of production and outmoded relations of production. In the case of nuclear energy, this new force of production – or destruction, which is one and the same – is pounding against the national boundaries and property forms of monopoly capitalism. The development of this limitless source of power for beneficial social purposes is retarded and strait jacketed, while the major effort is concentrated on increasing its megatons of destruction.
This has involved the capitalist statesmen in the most excruciating of dilemmas. On one side, they must pile up nuclear arms as the indispensable instrument of their strategy to halt the progress of the workers’ states and socialist forces and hold on to their possessions and power. On the other side, the incalculable consequences of dropping the bombs becomes a deterrent to their use.
How long can capitalism – and, even more, the people who live under daily threat of annihilation – go on this way? This intolerable “balance of terror” keeps pressing for solution. It is a major factor in politicalizing and radicalizing the most sensitive segments of the population, from the youth to the mothers. Sooner or later their opposition to H-bomb diplomacy will extend into the ranks of labor, as it already has in Japan and England.
Mills clashes most profoundly with Marxism over the revolutionary role of the working class. He opposes the Marxist doctrine that the class struggle over the surplus product of the working force has been the prime mover and reshaper of history since the beginnings of civilization and private property. Asserting that class harmony and collaboration is “as much a fact of class history as is a struggle,” he extends this generalization to the monopoly capitalism of today. There collaboration between classes will remain predominant.
Mills acknowledges that the Marxist law of the capitalist concentration of wealth and power has worked out to the danger point in the U.S. But the corollary to this process, the deepening of the antagonism between the monied magnates and the hosts of labor, has not. Western capitalism may be stratified into classes but it has become stabilized, he argues. The workers in the affluent countries have neither desire nor need to do away with the existing system. They want nothing more than a larger share of the national income. Since their living standards have been improving wherever capitalist policies have been flexible and wherever democracy and unionism have been strong, they can have no reasons for revolutionary, ideas or action.
Mills apparently arrived at his conclusion – that the workers are non-evolutionary and will forever be subordinate within Western capitalism – through an objective examination of present facts. But this conviction really rests upon a prior disbelief in the creative and directive capacities of the working people. Otherwise, why should he assume that a handful of monopolists could rule whereas the mass of workers never could?
This disqualification of the workers as potential leaders of society is the most flagrant expression of Mills’ essential sociological conception that elites of one kind or another have been and will continue to be the principal history makers. He looks to the intellectuals for immediate salvation. He founds his hopes for peace, freedom and progress, not on the victory of the working masses over the plutocracy, but rather on the benign influence to be exerted by scholars, ministers, scientists and writers, the peripheral and not the central forces in our society.
In downgrading the workers Mills forgot that ascending social classes do not realize their full potential all at once. Classes undergo a prolonged development in which they are gradually transformed as the result of ceaselessly renewed efforts to satisfy their growing needs. Only after successive stages do they finally arrive at the point of a showdown with the ruling power that oppresses them. And history teaches that progressive forces do not make this challenge simultaneously and all together but in highly irregular sequence as necessity dictates.
In The Marxists Mills has demonstrated nothing beyond the obvious fact that up to now that part of the world working class which is directly dominated by imperialism and has shared its privileges has not mustered enough energy and clarity of consciousness to dislodge the monopolist masters from power. That is to say, the growth of the workers in the West as a revolutionary force has, for ascertainable reasons, been stunted and retarded. This is very different from the conclusion that their revolutionary qualities are non-prime or exhausted.
Our argument with Mills does not center primarily on what the workers are today. We can agree that the political passivity, lack of militancy and dulled class consciousness of labor in the advanced countries stand in sharp contrast with the revolutionary ardor in the colonial areas. Our divergences revolve around what the workers can and must become in the further course of economic, political and cultural development.
Is the present state of affairs and alignment of class forces transitional or permanent? Mills foresees the prolongation of capitalist stabilization and harmony with labor. The revolutionary socialists envisage an erosion of the supports of monopoly capitalism which will lead to social conflicts and labor radicalization. Here two irreconcilable lines of capitalist and anticapitalist development are projected. Which is right?
The social scientist, even more than the political strategist, ought to measure vast social changes on appropriate scales. The contest between organized capital and its labor opposition concerns nothing less than the replacement of one global social regime by another. The direction and ultimate destination of the contending forces cannot be correctly and comprehensively apprehended at a single cross-section of time in a particular area of the world. They must be viewed in the context of their over-all evolution on the world arena.
Restricting our analysis to the past forty years, labor in Western Europe and North America does not present a picture of unrelieved stagnation or retrogression. The labor movement from Spain to Poland was crushingly defeated by fascism during the 1930’s. At that time numerous former radicals asserted that European labor was forever pulverized, would never rise again as an independent force, and all its socialist perspectives were obliterated. Yet its economic and political organizations have been rebuilt to the point where Western European labor can again become the challenger of capitalist power.
US labor, on the other hand, passed from industrial atomization to union organization in one mighty leap during the 1930’s – and has been marking time ever since. It now combines an immensely powerful organization and latent strength with an utterly reactionary officialdom and a crusty conservatism in its upper ranks.
Our trade unions are politically more backward than the newly emerging unions of Africa. Now that the Canadian unions have launched the New Democratic party, ours is the only one among the major industrial countries that has not formed a political party of its own. Yet, in view of the recuperative capacities shown and the precedents set by labor in other lands, there is no reason to doubt that labor in this country will under changing conditions also shed its conservatism and resume its forward march.
Many skeptics regard socialist propaganda for a labor party as hopeless. They doubt whether the American workers can ever generate enough steam to cut loose from the Democrats and establish themselves as an autonomous political force. In the 1920’s, an earlier generation of wiseacres had it figured out that the industrial proletariat was too divided, ignorant, downtrodden and leaderless to beat back Big Business and unionize the basic industries. It might be added that this was a tougher job to carry through than it would be to set up a national labor party with the resources of the existing unions.
Let us grant that US labor has a long way to go in catching up with its more advanced contingents in the rest of the world. Yet over the past hundred years our labor movement has grown into an economic, social and political power of a magnitude topped only by organized wealth itself.
Now the question is posed: should the partisans of the Old Left – or the New – take as their point of departure the achievements culminating in the militancy of the 1930’s ... or should they base their estimates of the future upon the passivity of the Cold War period and look back upon the capacities displayed earlier as labor’s last burst of creative energy? Which is the virile rising class and which is the senile and reactionary one – capital or labor?
Revolutionary socialists deduce from the international and national experiences of the past century, and the antagonistic tendencies of capitalist development, that the wiping out of the open shop in basic industry was not the final upheaval in the struggle between corporate wealth and organized labor. In reality, the industrial class battles in the first half of this century were only the opening chapters in a process of class struggle and social transformation which will find its sequel, and very likely its culmination, on the political plane during the second half. Just as the forward leap of the 1930’s overcame the stagnation of the 1920’s, so the advances of the coming period will erase the apathy of the 1950’s and open up broader opportunities for radicalism and Marxism in the US.
Mills took his stand on the opposite alternative. He regarded any program depending on the independent action and heightened political consciousness of the workers as “metaphysical moonshine.” This is the gravest decision a radical can make, for upon it hinges the main line of his political activity.
In calculating the status and prospects of American labor, Mills unaccountably failed to reckon with the implications of the Negro struggle for equality which has the most direct bearing upon the movement for social change in this country.
Mills seemed to look upon the Negro movement as something essentially separate from the general labor struggle. To be sure, the fight against Jim Crow has its special roots in American history and has its own characteristics, aims, pace and channels of development. At the same time, it is an integral part of the conflict of American labor against the established order. Almost all Negroes belong to the working class and are the most abused section of it. Color discrimination is the most vicious instrument of class exploitation. That is why the Negroes have taken the lead in combating its consequences.
That is not all. Although the Negro movement arises from the disabilities suffered here, it is connected with the uprisings of the disinherited colored peoples in the colonial and semicolonial countries. The Negro demand for democratic rights is the most forcible and advanced expression to date within our own borders of this world-wide revolutionary process. This is understood, at least in part, by its most active participants who have been uplifted and strengthened by the Asian, African and Cuban revolutions.
The Negro struggle testifies that the rebellious mood which the imperialists fear so much and resist so fierce¬ly is surging up in our very midst. It is far from its final expression. Even at this point it is the major source of instability in our social and political structure. As A. Philip Randolph has reminded the AFL-CIO heads, the white majority of the working class, and especially its leaders, is far from sharing the sentiments or even properly supporting the battles of their black brethren. Their indifference in this respect resembles the attitude of French labor toward the Algerian rebels.
It cannot be expected that all the potentially dissident elements will react to the same grievances and swing into action simultaneously. The most exploited and oppressed, those with the least to lose and the most to win immediately, move first and fastest both on the world arena and within our own country. Their initiatives serve to unbalance the forces of reaction and unloose effects which can, in time, reanimate the more sluggish sections of labor.
It is useful to recall in this connection that not so long ago the Negro minority was even more low-rated as a militant and effective agency for social change than the working class majority is today by Mills and others. If the first prejudice is harder to sustain nowadays, the second is more enduring. But it, too, will be shattered by events to come.
Mills held that Marx’s prevision of the birth process of postcapitalist societies was as defective as his forecasts of capitalist development. Marx expected the workers in the most highly industrialized countries of Western Europe to abolish capitalism first and lead the way to socialism. Actually, capitalism has been overthrown only in backward peasant lands with autocratic regimes. According to Mills, this reversal of Marx’s anticipated order of revolutionary victory invalidated all claims to the scientific character of his sociology.
This argument was first invoked (in the name of Marxism) by the Social-Democratic theoreticians against the legitimacy of the Bolsheviks taking power in October 1917. The opponents of Bolshevism shut their eyes to the real advancement of the revolution because it ran counter to their preconception of its predestined route. But the living Marxism of the twentieth century rejected such a scholastic approach, adjusted its outlook to the actual events and, what is more, comprehensively explained them.
The unexpected fact that the proletariat first attained supremacy, not in the advanced sectors of Europe, but in one of its most backward countries did indeed go counter to Marx’s personal projection. But, far from nullifying the laws of historical materialism, the Russian Revolution extended the range of their application and enriched their content. This is certified by the fact that it was precisely the revolutionary Marxists who foresaw that probability years before it was realized and based their strategy upon it. Such was the political conclusion Trotsky drew from his theory of the permanent revolution applied to Russia as early as 1904-1906.
After 1917 Lenin explained that the socialist revolution had first triumphed in backward Russia for two main reasons. Under the stresses of imperialist war the chain of world capitalism had broken at its weakest link and let loose a peasant war of immense proportions and powers to back up the proletarian uprising. The interlocked struggles of these two classes enabled the Russian people to clean out, not only Czarism and landlordism, but bourgeois property and power and lay the foundations for a workers’ republic.
The victorious socialist revolutions in Yugoslavia, China and Cuba after the Second World War have followed the same general pattern. They have taken place not in the richest but in the most backward lands where long-delayed agrarian revolution has meshed with the anticapitalist and anti-imperialist actions of a rebellious proletariat which has not been held back by its own conservatism.
Here we have examples of the operation of the Marxist law of uneven and combined development. This law states that, in order to break out of their misery and catch up with the more progressive sectors, historically backward peoples and classes are often obliged to take over the most up-to-date ideas and achievements, act upon them, and thereby for a time rush ahead of their predecessors.
Mills mistakenly maintains that the revolutions in the underdeveloped countries have been primarily anti-feudal. It is true that feudal survivals, because of their extreme oppressiveness, provoke the most violent explosions among the colonial peoples. From this fact it is easy to draw the conclusion, as Mills does, that the colonial revolution is primarily antifeudal in character. But this is an extremely superficial view.
The vestiges of feudalism in backward lands long ago ceased to have any independent character or significance. In extending its sway over the entire globe, capitalism incorporated the survivals of earlier modes of exploitation into its own system. Today they are inextricably intertwined. Hence, while the colonial peoples place great emphasis on the fight against “feudalism,” this is but a single aspect of their struggles. Fundamentally, and in essence, the colonial revolution is directed against exploitation by foreign and domestic capital which bars the colonial and semi-colonial peoples from the benefits of a modern economy and culture. The only way the Russians, Yugoslavs, Chinese and Cubans could gain access to these advantages was by knocking down capitalism and taking the road to socialism.
That is why the world socialist revolution in this first stage has conquered in the colonial and semi-colonial regions and is progressing from there toward the most advanced capitalist countries of Europe and North America. The fact that the proletariat, at the head of the peasantry, had to take power in the poorer countries, while imperialism retained its grip upon the more productive ones, has created tremendous practical difficulties for the socialist forces and introduced grave distortions into their regimes. But these problems, too, have been illuminated by Marxist theory.
What is the sociological character of the regimes that have issued from the great revolutions of our time in Russia, Yugoslavia, China and most recently in Cuba? Does Soviet society, despite its defects, hold a place in the historical progression of humanity superior to that of the capitalist regimes, whatever their formal democracy? Can its planned economy be more productive and efficient than capitalist economy?
From Mills’ book we can learn what Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Hilferding, Kautsky, Mao Tse-tung and G.D.H. Cole think on these not unimportant matters. But, except for a few remarks on the bureaucratic character of the Soviet superstate, we cannot tell how Mills defines its social-historical nature.
Mills says that contemporary Marxists face the necessity of elaborating theories to explain the diverse types of Soviet-bloc societies. But beyond posing a series of questions about the prospects of de-Stalinization under Khrushchev, he refrains from telling us his views. He evidently had still to work out his solutions to these perplexing sociological problems.
Yet contemporary Marxism is not so impoverished or embarrassed in this field as he implies. The movement of the Fourth International has formulated and published views on all these questions, proceeding from Trotsky’s analysis of the reasons for the degeneration of the Soviet state under Stalin and indicating the sources of its regeneration through the extension of the international revolution, the advances of Soviet economy and culture, and the political revitalization of its working masses.
But much as he esteemed Trotsky, Mills could not adopt his conclusions. He remained equally resistant to the Marxism of the nineteenth and of the twentieth centuries.
Through Mills we can observe the left flank of American liberalism undergoing a process of negation and dissolution. His thinking was a mass of contradictions. Repelled by the decay of liberalism and its apology for capitalist reaction and militarism, he nevertheless adhered to its fundamental pragmatic method of approach to the major social processes of our epoch. He was attracted by socialism but could not accept its scientific doctrine. He was a partisan of the Latin-American revolution who had no faith in a North American revolution. He opposed the autocracy of the Power Elite and aspired to a rebirth of democracy in our country. But he despaired of the capacities of the working people to clear the way for its realization.
Such an extremely awkward theoretical and political posture could not have been maintained for long. How these inconsistencies would have been resolved and his positions finally crystallized no one can say. But the example of his inquiring mind and courageous stands should inspire others among the New Left to go farther and cast off, not only the compromising policies of liberalism, but its false theories and methods in sociology and politics as well.
Mills won enduring honor for his impassioned defense of the Cuban Revolution. He saw in the young Cuban rebels a model for the New Left of the post-Stalin generation. He was not wrong. But while he was writing off Marxism as obsolete and Utopian, the Fidelistas were going forward from abstract humanism to Marxism and from bourgeois-democratic to explicit proletarian-socialist aims. As “Che” Guevara told K.S. Karol:
“We are not the same men we were when we fought in the Sierra Maestra. I have always been a student of Marx. But now I realize that Marxism is not simply a doctrine – it is a science.” (New Statesman, May 19, 1961.)
This postscript, written by the Cuban revolutionists to Listen, Yankee, is an ironic refutation of the skepticism about scientific socialism expressed in The Marxists. The Cuban experience will not be confined to Latin America. It prefigures the future on the whole Western hemisphere. The banner of Marxism and the socialist revolution today flying over Havana will yet be unfurled on the shores of North America.
Last updated on 21 May 2009